Parents wait for nutrition tests for their children in Juba, South Sudan. Image: Robert Oxley/DFID

We’re Fighting Famine in South Sudan With Images From Outer Space

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, DigitalGlobe, and thousands of online volunteers partner up to map out displacement in crisis-stricken regions.

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May 12 2017, 3:00pm

Parents wait for nutrition tests for their children in Juba, South Sudan. Image: Robert Oxley/DFID

Millions of people in South Sudan, a nation in northeastern Africa, are suffering from one of the most devastating famines in decades. Brought on by drought, war, and widespread instability, this looming crisis was recognized back in 2015 by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), an organization created by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to monitor potential humanitarian disasters in food-insecure regions around the world.

Following the warnings of FEWS NET, the United Nations formally declared the situation a famine in February, spurring an international effort to slow the horrific consequences of the emergency, which affects half of the South Sudanese population—including over one million children.

It can be easy to feel powerless in the face of this catastrophe, but FEWS NET has developed an innovative way for anyone with an internet connection to support the recovery efforts of relief workers on the ground. The network is working with with DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based satellite company that offers the highest resolution satellite imagery commercially available—30 to 50 centimeters per pixel—on a crowdsourcing campaign run by DigitalGlobe's Tomnod platform.

Using Tomnod, which means "big eye" in Mongolian, users can sift through detailed satellite images of the South Sudanese counties impacted by the famine and tag key features like permanent settlements, temporary camps, and livestock herds. This provides workers on the ground with a constantly updated picture of where refugees are seeking shelter, how accessible they are to humanitarian aid, and the emergency level at each location.

Settlements in South Sudan. Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe

"Given the context in South Sudan right now, there's been a very high level of displacement [and] all we had were anecdotal reports of where these populations were concentrating," FEWS NET deputy chief Chris Hillbruner told me over the phone. In partnering with DigitalGlobe, Hillbruner and his colleagues wanted to learn "how can we use different kinds of data, technology, and analysis to understand these patterns of displacement better."

In late 2015, FEWS NET and DigitalGlobe launched their first South Sudanese campaign on Tomnod, which attracted roughly 20,000 of the platform's users, according to Rhiannan Price, senior manager of DigitalGlobe's global development program.

"The crowd was able to go through an area of about 14,000 square kilometers in two weeks," logging about 46,000 data points, she told me in a joint phone call with Hillbruner. "From a technical perspective, it was incredible to see what the crowd was able to do, and to be able to rally that for a humanitarian cause in a very far-flung area really helped when it came to extracting insights at scale."

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To build on the success of that effort, FEWS NET and DigitalGlobe kicked off a second Tomnod campaign last month, focused on Panyijiar, Leer, Guit, Koch, and Mayendit counties, which are at the epicenter of the crisis. Given that the situation is still actively unfolding, it's important to refresh the satellite data, and to monitor the dynamics of displacement over both short and long-term periods.

"This kind of analysis helps us to hone in on a more realistic estimate of what the sizes of these populations are," Hillbruner said. "By taking the 2015 analysis and comparing it to 2017, we can try to understand how those patterns are changing."

Settlements in South Sudan. Image courtesy © 2017 DigitalGlobe

Tomnod is one of many satellite-based platforms that support humanitarian and environmental watchdog efforts, such as Global Fishing Watch or the Open Landscape Partnership Platform, but it is particularly popular thanks to a 2014 campaign to pinpoint wreckage from the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. About 2.3 million volunteers contributed to that cause.

Partnerships between tech companies and humanitarian organizations may be even more essential during the Trump administration, given that the President has repeatedly stressed his aversion to funding foreign relief programs.

In his budget outline, released in March, Trump suggested that "deep cuts to foreign aid" were essential to "prioritize the security and well-being of Americans" and to spur "the rest of the world to step up and pay its fair share." FEWS NET is among many groups rumored to be marked for heavy cuts, or even elimination, by the administration.

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